The Major League Baseball Draft is a life changing event for hundreds of players each year.
Over the next three days, the best from the high school and college eligible ranks will gather at Lumen Field in Seattle, at their homes with friends and family, or maybe even huddling around a phone hooked up to a car — all to find out whether they’ve been drafted. From there, each player will get the opportunity to begin a professional career with one common goal: Reaching the Majors.
A few weeks ago, I was covering the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Miami Marlins. With the MLB draft approaching, I went around asking the same question to as many people as I could: “Do you remember your draft day?”
These are the Major League stories that came from those questions and conversations.
With the first pick of the draft…
The Pittsburgh Pirates will select first in the 2023 MLB Draft. The draft is now a prime time event, and will air at 7 PM on MLB Network. When the Pirates make their selection, it will look a little something like this:
Henry Davis, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2021, 1st Round, 1st Overall
In late June 2021, Henry Davis received an email invitation in his inbox. He had been invited to attend the Bellco Theatre in Denver, Colorado for MLB Network’s broadcast of the 2021 MLB Draft.
During that same time period leading up to the draft, his advisor was on the phone, negotiating a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates to sign for $6.5 million, which was under MLB’s bonus pool for the first overall pick that year by almost $2 million. The Pirates used the savings to sign several first round prep talents — including left-handed pitcher Anthony Solometo and right-handed pitcher Bubba Chandler, who were roommates with Davis in his first Spring Training. When it came time for the pick, Davis knew where he was going, and everyone watched him react.
“I just had some family and some coaches with me,” Davis said. “Really had a good day.”
In the fall prior to his draft, Davis held some draft meetings, with teams trying to get to know him as a person. By the time the draft rolled around, he was rated a consensus top five prospect, and the Pirates liked him enough to draft him first overall as a catcher.
I spoke with Davis and everyone else for this article during a four game series between the Pirates and the Miami Marlins, from June 22nd through June 25th. Davis had been called up a few days prior, and hit his first Major League home run in the first game of that Miami series.
Two days ago, Davis made his debut behind the plate, catching one inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Pirates got his bat to the majors quicker by putting him in right field, and they are gradually working on his catching in practice. I tried to ask everyone I spoke with if they could envision their path to the majors. Davis knew on draft day that it would take work.
“I knew this is where I wanted to be, but the only way to get there is to focus on winning each day, so I tried to do that,” Davis said.
At 7 PM tonight, the Pirates will draft someone who might be able to join Davis in that quest for winning as another 1-1 overall pick.
What Happens When the World Shuts Down?
“It was a real crazy moment. It was right in the middle of COVID. So it was hard getting everyone together at the house and everything, but super exciting day.”
Nick Gonzales, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2020, 1st Round, 7th Overall
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted and shut down many things in the world in 2020. The MLB Draft was shortened to five rounds, and held over a two day span on a conference call. Nick Gonzales gathered whatever family he could during the times, and listened as the Pirates drafted him with the seventh overall pick.
“I remember the day took forever to come,” said Gonzales. “But then it flew by once it happened, and it was just pure excitement and joy for me and my family. And, you know, looking back, it feels like it was yesterday.”
I spoke with Gonzales for this article one day after he made his Major League debut against the Marlins. Years earlier, in the fall of his junior year in 2019, he started getting attention for the first round. He had his team interviews, but once COVID hit, everything switched to Zoom meetings.
“It was like every day doing Zoom meetings and calls and everything like that, because they couldn’t come in person to watch anybody,” said Gonzales.
Gonzales said that he didn’t envision his path to the big leagues on draft day, but that it came along the way.
“I had no idea what to expect, but it’s been a blessing,” said Gonzales. “It’s been a long ride and it’s been a journey. It’s been awesome.”
What Happened Before Broadcasts?
“It was just internet. You had to make sure the download was working.”
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2005, 1st Round, 7th Overall
The town of Fort Meade, Florida only had one MLB Draft pick prior to 2005. That was 2002 sixth round pick Josh Barnett, who was drafted by the Texas Rangers. Andrew McCutchen was expected to be the town’s first ever first round pick by the time the 2005 draft rolled around.
“The Pirates picked me, but it was pretty low key then,” said McCutchen. “A little different than the way they do now. I was just at home. Just at the house. I had some family and friends there, and we listened to it on the computer.”
McCutchen said that the Tampa Bay Rays and Detroit Tigers were two teams he could recall showing interest. The Rays took right-handed pitcher Wade Townsend eighth overall. The Detroit Tigers went with outfielder Cameron Maybin one pick before the Pirates selected. That allowed the Pirates to draft one of the most iconic players the city has seen in decades, and a sure-fire Hall of Famer by the time he’s wrapped up his career in Pittsburgh.
The rumor mill at the time wasn’t like it is today, where the Pirates’ first overall pick in 2023 could very well be learned on social media before the pick is made on the broadcast.
“There was no social media,” McCutchen said of 2005. “We didn’t have social media. We had MySpace.”
McCutchen received some attention back then, including early internet mock drafts from Baseball America, and this interview with the Orlando Sentinel prior to the draft. It was nothing like today.
“It’s not like I could look on my phone and see who’s talking,” said McCutchen. “Which is kind of a good thing. You’re able to just focus on the game of baseball, that’s it, and really not worry about anything else. Sometimes I wish it could be like that.”
Bonus Pool Bidding Wars
“Pretty crazy. I didn’t really have any expectations that I was gonna go on the first day. First round went by, no one called or anything, so it’s a long day. Then, finally the Pirates called like three picks before and they’re trying to figure out a number and we said yeah. Then they said ‘Yeah, go watch the TV. We’re gonna pick you.’ It was pretty cool. Pretty cool moment with my family.”
Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2014, 2nd Round, 64th Overall
The Baltimore Orioles didn’t have a pick in the 2014 draft until the third round, pick number 90. They had drafted right-handed pitcher Jon Keller in the 22nd round one year earlier. With their first pick in 2014, they had a pre-draft agreement with Jon’s younger brother, Mitch Keller.
“We kind of had a deal already set and then the Pirates called,” said Keller. “It was under the deal we already had with the Orioles, so we were like if you match it… and yeah, they did.”
In the modern draft system, starting in 2012, every team gets a set budget to spend on their entire draft. Teams try to reach deals with players before the draft, and high school players typically command more, due to college scholarships and the chance to rapidly improve their game during the highly formative years of 18-21. The Pirates paid Keller a $1 million bonus to match the Orioles and get him to turn pro with them — also signing him away from a commitment to the University of North Carolina.
Keller started getting attention for the draft during his junior year of high school, with scouts knowing who the right-hander was due to previously scouting his brother.
“Everyone kind of knew that I was there, but I was probably like a 15th rounder at that time,” Keller said. “And then I took a big jump to my senior year, started throwing 95. That’s when it just kind of took off. It’s like you’ll be a top two rounder.”
When the 2023 draft winds down, Major League Baseball will shift gears and the midsummer classic All-Star Game will take place, with Keller on the National League roster. Keller didn’t know he would be selected when I spoke with him, but it was clear at that point he was having an All-Star season.
“I had never envisioned anything like this,” Keller said. “I was just excited to get drafted and play minor league baseball and see where that took me and tried to do the best I could. Put everything I had into it when I got here.”
Keller gave credit to his success to the many coaches that worked with developing him over the years.
“There’s a lot of people along the way, like Matt Ford, who is still in Bradenton, and Scott Mitchell, huge for me,” said Keller. “Guys like [Joel] Hanrahan, I’m probably missing a few. Just a lot of coaches along the way that helped me a lot. [Scott] Ellerton was huge. He was my first pitching coach. Still guys I lean on today. Asking questions here and there. So yeah, a lot of people in my corner.”
“It Was Kind of An Eventful Day”
“Yeah, our Wi Fi went out in the house so we couldn’t stream it. We had to put it on my sister’s phone and plug it into the car so we could watch and listen. I think that’s more one of the main reasons why it was kind of an eventful day.”
JT Brubaker, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2015, 6th Round, 187th Overall
The draft used to have long intermissions, allowing teams and their scouts to collect themselves — along with all of the writers following along at the time. After the fifth round, JT Brubaker was without Wi Fi, and was waiting around a car with his family to hear if the Pirates would select him.
“In ’15, when they still had the second day intermission, I got drafted the very next round,” said Brubaker. “So, during that intermission, that 40 minutes or whatever it was, there were phone calls back and forth.”
The Pirates were working with his advisor, aiming to take him in the fifth or sixth round. They offered him the full slot price for the sixth round, plus paying for his college, to get him to agree to a deal. Shortly after, he heard his name called on the draft stream, and after that he heard from the Pirates.
Brubaker is currently out for the season after going down with Tommy John surgery during Spring Training. Prior to that, he was expected to be one of the top starters in the Pirates’ 2023 rotation. His path to the big leagues wasn’t something he saw at the time.
“Definitely came along the way,” said Brubaker. “I didn’t want to get too far ahead in that moment. It was just time to get to work. I got my foot in the door. And we’ll see where this career takes me. And fortunately enough, I made it to the big leagues, and I’ve been up here for three years going on four now. So back, 2015, definitely didn’t see that. Knew it was a possibility, but right then and there, not in that moment.”
30 Seconds To Mars
“I was at home. Kind of like a get together, a barbecue type deal with all my closest friends. We had family over. It was a great day. I didn’t know really what to expect.”
Connor Joe, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2014, 1st Round, 39th Overall
The late first round is not like the early first round. MLB added competitive balance picks for small market teams around 2012, giving those teams additional choices at the top of the draft. The Pirates used their pick in 2014 to draft Connor Joe. He found out he was going to be the pick 30 seconds before it happened.
“I got a phone call before the pick, and then really just those couple of lines of communication,” said Joe. “Not like really, confirmation that I was going to be taken. But I had communication before the Pirates picked, and then found out on live TV.”
Excitement. Joy. Screaming. Hugging.
“A lot of crying from my parents, my grandparents,” said Joe.
Draft prospects can gain draft attention in summer wood bat leagues, like the Cape Cod league. That’s where Joe started getting noticed, prior to his junior year at the University of San Diego.
“I got a lot of attention out there,” said Joe. “And that’s really when stuff started happening. That carried into my season at USD, getting a lot of interviews and meeting with a lot of scouts.”
Joe had a rocky path to the majors. Days into his professional career, he suffered a fluke, but serious back injury, which limited his early career with the Pirates. They traded him to the Atlanta Braves in 2017 for Sean Rodriguez. Joe eventually made the majors with the Rockies, and the Pirates acquired him back this past offseason. He didn’t envision the path, but he was thinking about the majors on draft day.
“It was in my mind,” said Joe. “The goal was always to get to the big leagues. Didn’t really envision all the ups and downs throughout my career. But yeah, I’m really happy to be here and it is like a full circle type deal to be here with the Pirates. So that’s really special.”
Over Slot and Ready to Play
“We were just watching TV. I think we had a couple of people over. Kind of a small thing. I definitely remember getting the phone call.”
Cody Bolton, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2017, 6th Round, 178th Overall
A few picks before the Pirates were on the clock in the sixth round of the 2017 draft, Cody Bolton got a phone call. The voice on the other end of the line had one question:
“How’d you like to be a Pirate?” Bolton recalled, before hearing his name on the draft. “I was ready to play.”
The Pirates agreed to a modest over-slot deal with Bolton, paying him $300,000 to get him to turn pro. The attention on Bolton was consistent throughout his senior year.
“I had all the scouts come through, come to the games, the in house meetings and stuff,” said Bolton.
Bolton made his Major League debut this season, and has gone back and forth between Triple-A and the majors as bullpen depth. His journey to the majors was something he was aiming for at the time, though he has gone through several injuries, including Tommy John. The adversity has allowed him to get to a stronger place that he could have envisioned on draft day.
“I mean, I didn’t have me getting hurt two years ago on there,” said Bolton. “But I mean, you gotta adapt and you gotta work through some stuff. Not everybody has an easy path. Some guys go through some challenges. I was one of those guys. I went through having knee surgery. I bounced back from that pretty well. That year was a blessing in disguise. I was able to get [my body] to where it needed to be to better me off for the future.”
When You Don’t Have Any Leverage
“I was actually driving home from from Nashville towards Atlanta, when I found out I was drafted. It was my second time kind of going through that process. And the first time wasn’t exactly the most pleasant experience. So I just kind of, you know, it was a low key kind of thing.”
Jason Delay, San Francisco Giants, 2016, 11th Round, 335th Overall
Jason Delay, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2017, 4th Round, 118th Overall
The MLB bonus pools only include players in rounds 1-10. Any player taken after the 10th round doesn’t apply to the overall bonus pool, unless their bonus exceeds a certain amount — $150,000 is the max for the 2023 draft. In 2016, the San Francisco Giants selected Jason Delay in the 11th round, but didn’t make a strong attempt to sign him.
“There just wasn’t a lot of communication between us,” said Delay. “And then, you know, money kind of got complicated, and it wasn’t what I thought it was gonna be. And it just kind of turned out to be a disappointing experience. And that’s why I ended up going back to school.”
Delay had some draft interest out of high school, but never gave pro ball serious consideration.
“I always knew I wanted to go to college,” said Delay. “You see guys in front of you, that get drafted, and that kind of becomes the mindset.”
After the Giants didn’t sign him in 2016, he entered a zero-leverage situation. He would be returning to school as a college senior, which meant during the 2017 draft he would be faced with a simple choice: Sign with whoever drafted him, or don’t play baseball.
“When I decided to go back to [Vanderbilt] after my junior year, there was an understanding that I will probably would sign for under slot and the following year,” said Delay.
The Pirates drafted him in the fourth round, and gave him a $100,000 bonus. They saved about $350,000 in bonus pool money, some of which went toward signing Cody Bolton in a later round. College seniors don’t get priority playing time, and have difficulty reaching the majors. Delay nearly retired last year, with his career stalled in the upper levels, just prior to making his MLB debut.
“I think anytime you get drafted, you fully believe that you’re capable of playing in the majors,” said Delay. “You see it happening out in front of you. And, you know, everyone has a different path. Obviously, I couldn’t have predicted the way things turned out for me, but I certainly expected to play in the big leagues at that point.”
A Waiting Game
“Oh, I cried. Happy, was excited. I didn’t get much sleep that night. I was so giddy.”
Cal Mitchell, Pittsburgh Pirates, 2017, 2nd Round, 50th Overall
The Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Angels were two teams looking at Cal Mitchell early in the 2017 draft. Mitchell had some ideas where he would go, but it wasn’t the Pirates initially. When draft day arrived, it was a waiting game.
“I remember just sitting on my phone,” said Mitchell. “I went to my advisor’s house, he’s my agent now, but advisor then. Hung out there all day. It was a small group with my family and my advisors, kind of a team of baseball people that I was using for guidance.”
The Pirates picked at 50. They called Mitchell at pick 46, with Milwaukee on the clock, asking if Mitchell would sign with the Pittsburgh. He said yes. After the Angels passed at 47, the Pirates called again at pick 48 with the same question. He said yes again. Then came pick 50.
“When the pick was going on, they called me a third time and asked for sure I’d sign and they said ‘Okay, we’re taking you,'” said Mitchell. “I remember telling my parents and agent and everyone was like congrats. I remember I didn’t want to get excited just yet, because I just wanted to hear my name called.”
Mitchell signed for slot price out of the high school ranks. He had been on the draft radar since the summer heading into his freshman year of high school. He had an opportunity to play for an Orioles scout at the time, though he would pass on the opportunity. It wasn’t long after that more scouts came around.
“Early on I remember it was always to get to college at first, and then I started talking to scouts my first year of high school and they liked me and said they’d follow,” said Mitchell. “I guess that’s kind of when I started getting my eye on the draft.”
Mitchell has spent 71 games in the majors over the last two seasons, including two games this year. Getting to the big leagues was the goal from the start.
“I always wanted to be a big leaguer,” said Mitchell. “Always. I thought early on when I was in middle school, I remember thinking my route was gonna be through college. But, it sped up.”
Those Are Some Stressful Years
“I remember just sitting there watching the draft go on, watching the rounds go on, and just wondering when I was going to get that phone call. I got a few phone calls that day, from a couple of teams in the third round, the possibilities. We were making agreements, but they picked somebody else. And I remember the Blue Jays called, and they gave me a number. I said, yes. And saw my name go up on the draft board. And it was a great feeling. And everybody was jumping around. We were all excited. We’re hugging each other. And then, first thing my uncle said was ‘Get ready, because you’re at the bottom of the barrel again. Don’t get too excited.’ It’s a day I’ll never forget.”
Josh Palacios, Cincinnati Reds, 2014, 31st Round, 935th Overall
Josh Palacios, Toronto Blue Jays, 2016, 4th Round, 132nd Overall
Rey Palacios spent parts of three seasons in the majors in the late 1980s, as part of a ten year professional career. His nephew, Josh Palacios, was over at his house on June 6th, 2016, following the draft. Joining Palacios and his former big league uncle were his parents, a family friend, and several other people watching to see if the younger Palacios would get drafted. The Toronto Blue Jays came calling in the fourth round.
“They gave me a call right before I was picked, just make sure that I was cool with the pick and everything,” said Palacios. “I was in the fourth round. And I think my parents got home maybe like 30 or 40 minutes after I got drafted. It was a nice day outside. It’s one of those core memory days where everybody was excited.”
Palacios was having a good junior year at Auburn, but sprained his wrist, which raised some questions about his draft status. He wasn’t sure how teams would react to the injury risk.
“It wasn’t really that bad of injury,” said Palacios. “But you know, it’s the draft, everything’s kind of high pressure. But we had a good feeling I was going that year.”
With his bonus demands unmet out of high school, Palacios went undrafted the first time around. He went to San Jacinto College for his freshman year, and was drafted in the 31st round. He didn’t get the price he was looking for, and transferred to Auburn, where he was drafted and signed after his junior year.
“I’m not gonna lie, those are some stressful years in those drafts,” said Palacios. “You’re just sitting there, you got no control. Everything’s out of your hands. You’re around the phone, you’re hoping that they call you in the right time. And my goal was always to play professional baseball. So I was just waiting for the right call, for the right money, the right stuff. So it was a couple of stressful years. It’s a big relief in 2016, when I finally was like, yes, I knew I was gonna sign, finally we’re done with this.”
Having a family member who had previous MLB experience already gave Palacios a head start on what to expect and how to envision his path to the big leagues.
“I could definitely envision the path at the time,” said Palacios. “I knew what it took to get to the major leagues, to a degree. My uncle played in the big leagues. I know it’s a long road. I know you got to stay focused. And there’s a lot of things that we’re going to get in the way. But my goal has always been to be a major league baseball player. So I put a lot into it at the time and made a lot of sacrifices.”
It’s a Different Kind of Opportunity
“I think it was just through… (Thinks) You know what? At the time, I was just waiting around for a phone call. (Laughs) There really wasn’t anything online or there wasn’t anything going on, on TV or anything like that. So they certainly didn’t have, you know, the kind of spectacle that they’ve turned it into now. Which I think is interesting for the game of baseball. But unlike other drafts, if you want to compare it to maybe football and basketball, you’re not necessarily getting the immediate opportunity to play in the big leagues. It’s a different kind of opportunity. It’s an opportunity to put in the time and the effort and work and continue to hone your skills in the minor leagues to get that opportunity to play in the big leagues. Certainly right now I think it’s exciting for guys to obviously have some sort of opportunity to have it presented the way it’s presented right now, which is interesting. But the work is so much more that has to come in the next multiple years or decades. And that’s something that can get a little misconstrued in just a few moments of a draft.”
Rich Hill, Cincinnati Reds, 1999, 36th Round, 1088th Overall
Rich Hill, Anaheim Angels, 2001, 7th Round, 209th Overall
Rich Hill, Chicago Cubs, 2002, 4th Round, 112th Overall
Twenty-four years after first being drafted, Rich Hill is still in the majors. Drafted three times, Hill has enjoyed a lengthy career, and signed with the Pirates at the age of 43 this offseason — serving as a veteran leader and mentor for the pitching staff. Hill was drafted out of high school in 1999, but it took him a few years to be ready for the opportunity.
“The first time getting drafted, I wasn’t ready for professional baseball,” said Hill. “I was very immature, I was very young, undersized, as far as working out or putting on weight getting in the gym. Now, I don’t go back and question should I have signed out of high school. Because I don’t think I would have been ready.”
Hill was drafted a second time in 2001, but felt that he could improve his draft position with a trip to the Cape Cod league. He did improve that position, getting drafted in the fourth round by the Cubs in 2002.
“At the end of the day, after being in this game for so many years, that has nothing to do with where you’re going to be going,” said Hill on draft position and bonuses. “Yes, it will give you more opportunities, because there is an investment.”
As a pitcher, Hill knows that the road to the majors was tough. Rather than envisioning his future in the big leagues, Hill was focused on the next thing.
“I just envisioned, you know, really, what do I have to do next?” said Hill. “What’s the next step? What’s next? What’s the next task at hand? What’s the goal? Where are we going? And then all of a sudden, all that kind of gets muddied by performance, by injury, by lack of experience, which is something that you need in this game to understand how to get through difficult times. Not only do you need the experience, but you also have to have the love for the game. Because if we don’t have the love for the game, we would stop. And that wall that’s gonna be put up for everybody in the draft is going to happen at some point. And if you don’t truly love the game, you’re not going to continue to keep going. So, I mean, that’s just the harsh reality of what it is. And it’s not like saying it to… That answer comes from experience.”
Check PiratesProspects.com early this week for more from my conversation with Rich Hill on the MLB Draft.
Making the Majors From Day Three
“It was actually the day after our prom. So I was hanging out with some friends.”
Jack Suwinski, San Diego Padres, 2016, 15th Round, 444th Overall
Once you get beyond the tenth round, the odds of a player making it to the majors are lower. Already in his young MLB career, Jack Suwinski has shown himself to be the type of player who can beat those odds. On day three of the 2016 draft, however, Suwinski had stopped paying attention.
“I think it was my agent who ended up calling me,” Suwinski said on how he heard about the pick. “I think a couple of people who were following the draft just reached out to me, because I wasn’t following it at that point.”
Suwinski had just celebrated his senior prom the day prior. He started getting attention from scouts during his senior year of high school, with what he described as “slight interest.”
“Nothing crazy,” said Suwinski. “Just did a couple events. Pretty low key, but basically more as it got closer.”
The Padres drafted Suwinski, and paid him an above-slot bonus of $550,000. They traded him to the Pirates at the trade deadline in 2021, in exchange for Adam Frazier. Suwinski heads into the All-Star break with 19 home runs, tying his rookie year total last season. Suwinski said that he thought about his future in the majors on draft day.
The Draft Isn’t Like It Used To Be
“It was bizarre. Back then you didn’t get notified until you got a letter in the mail. I didn’t play a lot in college. I didn’t expect to get drafted. Went to a try out camp. They asked me if I’d be interested. If I’d go back to school if I got drafted. I said, no, I’d sign. So I got a letter in the mail, said I was drafted. Didn’t know what round. I went to the ballpark, met Syd Thrift. And they offered me money, which I thought was bizarre. And then I said, ‘Well, what round did I go in?’ and they said ‘Seventh,’ and I about fell off the chair. Because I didn’t expect to get drafted, let alone that high. It was all big shock for me. Obviously today there’s combines, and this and that. I basically got drafted out of a tryout camp.”
John Wehner, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1988, 7th Round, 174th Overall
Can you imagine, in today’s draft, the idea that a player wouldn’t find out he was drafted until an actual letter from the United States Postal System was delivered to his physical address? That’s what happened with John Wehner in the 1988 draft.
The day before the tryout that would get him drafted, Wehner was in summer school. He hadn’t been playing, because his season was over.
“Back then you ran, you threw, and you hit a little bit,” said Wehner. “I’ll never forget, the scouting director then was Elmer Gray. And he said, ‘We’ve never seen you play, but we’re drafting you.'”
Wehner thinks he first got noticed when someone saw him in high school and invited him to a tryout. It was after his junior year, and he might not have been on anyone’s radar in the summer of 1988 without the previous year’s tryout.
“If I had a final the next day, I probably wouldn’t have made it to the tryout,” Wehner said.
Two days after signing, Wehner went to Bradenton, Florida, where he spent a few days before starting his playing career.
“It was surreal, because now you’re playing every day,” said Wehner. “You’ve got a wood bat. You’re playing against obviously, much better competition. For me, it was just going and playing. For me, it was an opportunity and I’m gonna go play. Which was cool, because that’s what I’ve always wanted to do. You go from not playing much for three years to playing every day, which for me was the best thing in the world. So you’re just trying to figure it out and deal with your failures and find your way and that’s the difference for me is getting that opportunity to play everyday.”
They Don’t Even Make These Rounds Anymore
“Oh yeah. It was the third day. It was definitely still like a coin flip if I was going to get drafted or not. I was in the Cape. I was on a temp contract. It was like raining, I had my phone on me during BP and just like stressing and there was also [the draft] on the loudspeaker too, so I remember just hearing the rounds go by and go by. I think the Padres are like ‘Hey, just keep your phone on you the last day and maybe who knows?’ And then finally like, we get to the 30th rounds, I’m like ‘Oh man.’ And then like right before the 35th, a Padres guy texts me like ‘Hey, are we still good?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah let’s lock this in.’ And then I was on a flight to Arizona the next morning, so it happened just like that. Yeah, it was crazy.”
David Bednar, San Diego Padres, 2016, 35th Round, 1044th Overall
From the start of his pro career, David Bednar has had to wait around for the end of the game to get a call from his team. The MLB draft used to expand beyond 20 rounds — as high as 50 rounds during my 15 years covering this event. In 2016, Bednar was drafted on day three, in the 35th round, which doesn’t exist anymore.
“I knew the first two days were not going to happen,” said Bednar. “The third day was just a long shot. It was kind of funny on the flip side of it watching my brother go through that experience. He didn’t have to wait nearly as long as I did, but it was really cool and it’s a really cool moment for everybody because that’s what you work pretty much all your life for, for that opportunity and then go and try and make most of it.”
Bednar’s younger brother, Will Bednar, had a completely different draft experience as a first rounder in 2021. David Bednar was barely drafted, and owes his bump into the final rounds to his summer ball play.
“That summer before college ball, I had a pretty good summer,” said Bednar. “That’s kind of whenever I put my name on the map. I had a pretty decent junior year, decent showing. Threw in front of the Padres scout one time before and they end up taking me in the 35th round.”
There were other teams who scouted Bednar, but the Padres were the only team telling him to stay on the phone past the 20th round. They traded him to the Pirates ahead of the 2021 season, and he has since gone on to become one of the game’s best closers. Bednar will join Mitch Keller on the National League All-Star team this year. Could he ever have expected this outcome from the 35th round?
“Honestly, no. I had no expectations,” said Bednar. “Obviously, at that moment in time, I was just blown away to be drafted and thrilled for that opportunity, and wanted to make the most of it. I think part of the reason why I’ve been able to have some success is just you know, not getting too far ahead and just being where my feet are and just keep my head down and just been making most of every opportunity I’m given.”
Not Everyone Gets Drafted
“The draft day back then was three days. And it was the first year of only having 50 rounds. So before that, it was as long as two teams stayed in, you drafted. And I was a college senior and knew that if there was a chance, there was gonna be a small chance. And then the draft ended, and within about 15 minutes, I got two calls from two different organizations. Said we’re interested in signing you to be a minor league free agent. We need catching. The Yankees were the one that called. The initial offer was like, ‘Hey, we’re interested, we’ll call you back.’ And the Yankees called back first. And so I ended up signing with the Yankees.”
Derek Shelton, New York Yankees, 1992, Undrafted
The manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and a coach on the National League All-Star roster, Derek Shelton was never drafted. One year after MLB restricted the draft to 50 rounds, Shelton wasn’t selected, and was quickly signed to an undrafted free agent deal. Despite not getting selected, joining an MLB team had the same effect.
“Oh, it’s elation,” said Shelton. “I mean, anytime you get a chance to fulfill your dream and become a professional baseball player. It was an exciting time. And I mean, it was quick. They called on whatever day it was. And the next morning I flew to Tampa to go to a mini camp. It was just like a long journey being fulfilled, the first step of it being a professional baseball player.”
Shelton’s career was cut short after two seasons by an elbow injury. He was able to get a coaching position with the Yankees, which eventually led to his current position today. Shelton’s path to the majors was unconventional.
“I think it was more just survival every day,” said Shelton. “Because, you know, when you’re an undrafted free agent, you’re not getting a ton of opportunities. And I was very fortunate I was around some people in the Yankee organization that were coaches that took a liking to me and paid attention to me and helped me. I think early on, I realized, and they realized that I was probably not going to be a big league player, but I had the opportunity to be a professional coach. The fact that they invested their time in me, it was really beneficial to me and ultimately led to me getting, you know, that initial job, and then ultimately, jobs after that.”
Follow all of the 2023 draft coverage this week, from the first overall pick through the 20th round, on PiratesProspects.com.+ posts
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.